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Thai king makes 1st trip outside Bangkok in years

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[May 25, 2012]  BANGKOK (AP) -- Thousands of Thais lined roads in Bangkok and near the historic capital Ayutthaya on Friday to see the country's 84-year-old monarch on his first trip outside the capital in almost three years.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej actively worked for decades on behalf of the country's poor but has almost disappeared from public life since he was hospitalized in September 2009 for what the palace called a lung inflammation.

Since then he has had a variety of ailments and has lived in a royal wing of Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital, leaving only on rare occasions and always in a wheelchair.

Dressed in a military uniform, Bhumibol was wheeled from the hospital and into a white van adapted to accommodate his wheelchair. He, Queen Sirikit and one of their daughters, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, were driven past crowds of people waving Thai flags and the yellow royal flag as police outriders stopped traffic to let the king pass.

His hospitalization has coincided with the often violent political turmoil that has roiled Thailand in recent years and increased discussion on the still taboo subject of what role the monarchy should have in Thai politics and society.

The reverence most Thais have for their king was on full display Friday. People dressed in yellow and pink -- colors associated with the monarch -- lined the roads from Bangkok to the country's central plains hours before the royal convoy was due to pass. Thousands crowded the river banks around Ayutthaya where a procession of traditional boats was planned later in the day along with a parade of elephants.

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The trip was to center on a visit to a rice paddy that the king toured in 1996 as part of a royal project to develop a water retention system to mitigate flooding in Ayutthaya. During the country's devastating floods last year much of Ayutthaya was submerged, damaging ancient temples, crops and hundreds of factories.

The palace has given little explanation for the trip. It likely serves as a chance to publicize the king's improved health -- a matter of such public interest that a Bangkok newspaper carried a front-page headline Thursday that stated: "His Majesty The King Takes 50 Steps Without His Cane."

Bhumibol took the throne in 1946 and is the world's longest reigning monarch.

[Associated Press; By THANYARAT DOKSONE]

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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